The Links Between Shingles and Emotional Health

Shingles is a painful rash that affects one in three adults over 50, but anyone who’s had chickenpox is at risk. It can have lingering effects—including pain and depression.

You wake up one morning and feel a weird burning, itchy or tingly sensation. You look, but there’s nothing to see. The irritating sensation might last a couple of days before you spot the cause—a bumpy, blistery red rash that erupts on your face or along one side of your body. It could be a small patch—or a large one. And it hurts.

You’ve joined a not-very-exclusive club of people who develop shingles, AKA herpes zoster. One out of every three people in the US will experience shingles during their lifetime—but only if they’ve had chicken pox as a child. That’s because varicella zoster, the same virus that causes chicken pox, can reactivate decades later to cause shingles. Though anyone can get shingles, the risk increases as you get older.

In addition to the painful rash, you might feel sick with chills, a fever, upset stomach or have a headache while you’re enduring shingles, notes the National Institutes of Health. After about a week or 10 days, the blisters will dry into scabs which should clear up after a week or two. And that’s the end of the problem—for most people.

But for others, especially older adults, shingles can turn into a painful, emotionally traumatic journey that lasts a long time. Although shingles usually resolves in a few weeks to months, 20 percent of people aged 60 to 65 who get shingles will develop post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), a nerve pain syndrome that can cause long-lasting pain—for months or even years—after a shingles outbreak. Younger adults are also susceptible to PHN, but it’s rare in those under age 40.

Occurring along the same path (called “dermatome”) as the shingles rash, PHN is caused by damage to the nerve fibers that the rash activated. The nerve fibers, or neurons, become exquisitely sensitive to stimulation. As a result, you may experience constant burning, aching or throbbing pain; occasional pain which may feel stabbing or like an electrical shock, or pain that comes on when the area is stimulated in some way.

People with PHN report decreased quality of life, and what’s more, having PHN can affect the physical, psychological and social aspects of your life as well as your ability to function, wrote the researchers.

PHN pain can cause depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and weight loss. Some people will even have trouble with their daily activities, including dressing, cooking and eating.

Although PHN can be difficult to treat, especially in older adults, drugs used for nerve pain, such as gabapentin and pregabalin, which are also used to treat fibromyalgia, can help. Your health care provider might also recommend an antidepressant, a lidocaine pain patch or a topical gel.

While you’ve got the rash, smart self-care plus a few home remedies can provide relief:

  1. Get lots of rest and eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
  2. Use a cool washcloth to ease the pain and cool the blisters.
  3. Distract yourself! Watch TV, chat with friends, go for a walk or work on a hobby.
  4. Stress worsens the pain, so try to chill out by meditating, taking deep breaths or listening to music.
  5. If your rash is extensive, wear loose-fitting clothes made from natural fibers.
  6. Oatmeal baths and calamine lotion can be soothing.

The best defense for long-term shingle problems? Prevention! If you’re over age 50, talk to your healthcare provider about being vaccinated against shingles. The shingles vaccine can be given at your healthcare provider's office or a pharmacy.

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